In Lieu of the Gorsuch Assignment (Recaps): What’s Up With Small, Local Papers?

In lieu of the Gorsuch assignment, here are recaps on two recent articles focused on the current situation and future of small newspapers: 

Recap #1 on Tiny Iowa newspaper’s Pulitzer win is a reminder: There are fewer family-owned papers than ever before

In Kristen Hare’s piece on family owned papers, published recently on April 13, 2017, we’re reminded about the rarity of family-owned newspapers. Many small papers struggle to flourish in the current conditions of journalism. In the article, we see a lot of numbers. Lukas Alpert from The Wall Street Journal reported the following figures provided by Dirks, Van Essen & Murray—a merger and acquisition firm:

  • In the first quarter of 2017, five of the six newspaper sales were from a family-owned newspaper to a media group.
  • Only 15 percent of daily newspapers in the U.S. are independently owned.
  • In 1975, that number was 75 percent, down from 90 percent in 1900.
  • Only 10 cities are left with competing newspapers.

What’s important though, is that small family-owned papers can still do well if they work hard enough and are great journalists. The Storm Lake Times won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. The Storm Lake Times is a small paper in Storm Lake, Iowa that’s been around since 1990. Art Cullen, of the Storm Lake Times, won the award for his editorials that confronted Iowa’s most powerful agricultural interests including the Koch Brothers, Cargill and Monsanto, and their secret funding of the government defense of a big environmental lawsuit.

This just goes to show the underdogs and good guys (in journalism) can win big too. It also shows that investigative journalism at the local level can gain national attention and any good journalist no matter where from, has the capability to expose the truth—and even win highly esteemed awards while they are at it!

Recap #2 on Warren Buffett’s newspapers deploy familiar playbook as fortunes dim

In Corey Hutchinson’s piece, published recently on April 13, 2017, we learn that in early April nearly 300 jobs were cut at several local newspapers run by Berkshire Hathaway’s BH Media Group. How are the layoffs going down? It’s not up to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet who gets the cut. BH Media is leaving it up to the papers to decide who stays and goes.

What do the layoffs mean? The layoffs are due to decline in daily circulation at each newspaper from 2012 to 2016. For one paper, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, they admitted their struggles and long-term declines in print revenue and low digital advertising results. They ended up having to fire 33 full time employees.

According to the article, the overall fates of the small papers under BH Media are unclear.

It comes down to declining print readership (and subscriptions) and lack of ad revenue. The Press of Atlantic City, a paper apart of Berkshire Hathaway, shrank their staff and evolved into a more digital-centric newsroom, according to Hutchinson. That focus on digital was a good choice in 2013. They launched mobile apps, created a digital news team, redesigned its website and grew its video offerings.

This created a multimedia editor position, live-streamed events, launched podcasts and they partnered with a local university to create a news TV show. By the end of 2013, total page views on the paper’s website were 48.8 million. By the end of last year, that number reached 75 million, editor Kris Worrell tells CJR.

The paper still ended up having to lay off 12 employees—showcasing having a digital presence doesn’t mean immunity.

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